Donald Trump, who has never been shy about demanding that the media do his bidding, now has the power to shape the rules that define the future of newspapers, broadcast media, and the Internet. Trump’s appointees are already employing the regulatory-agency equivalent of executive orders to gut programs that would ensure net neutrality, expand broadband access, guard against consolidation of media ownership, and enforce disclosure of sources of spending on political ads. “This is what government by billionaires and special interests looks like,” says former Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Copps.
Within days of assuming the presidency, Trump named Ajit Pai as his FCC chair. A former associate general counsel for the Verizon telecommunications conglomerate, Pai was one of the FCC’s five commissioners during the Obama era. In that role, he often dissented against consumer-friendly regulations, robust market competition, and diversification of media ownership. Now, as FCC chair, Pai has moved rapidly to undo Obama’s FCC legacy, reversing or weakening measures that had begun to restore the commission’s commitment to regulating on behalf of the public, rather than the corporate, interest.
Pai speaks Trump’s language, promising to “fire up the weed whacker” to shred regulations that media corporations and the right-wing media echo chamber have long opposed. He also mimics Trump’s disdain for democratic process. Pai and his aides have employed “delegated authority”—a claim of power to act without public input, hearings, or votes by the full commission—to advance their agenda. In one case, they killed the FCC’s guidance to broadcasters on “shared service” agreements, an initiative to guard against media companies’ operating two or more stations in markets where there is supposed to be competition. In a second case, Pai pulled the FCC’s set-top-box proceeding, which would have brought competition to the cable market by enabling independent manufacturers to sell the set-top boxes that otherwise are provided by cable companies.
Pai also undermined a program to protect prisoners from profiteering off their calls home and scrapped a plan to expand broadband access for low-income families. (“Rather than working to close the digital divide,” Mignon Clyburn, the only Democratic commissioner remaining on the FCC, said of the latter move, “this action widens the gap.”) Pai rejected a report from the FCC’s Homeland Security Bureau on cybersecurity risk reduction, leading FCC watchdog Dana Floberg of Free Press to accuse him of “willfully ignoring reports and analyses that don’t bolster his preferred agenda of scaling back the FCC’s congressionally granted power.” Pai also withdrew a requirement that noncommercial stations file data that helped the FCC monitor the diversity of media ownership, and he set aside orders that made it easier for the FCC to sanction broadcasters that violate the agency’s political-advertising disclosure rules.
Pai has been an outspoken foe of net neutrality, the first amendment of the internet that guarantees the free flow of information without censorship or corporate favoritism. With Trump’s backing, and that of a Congress whose Republican leaders never say no to telecom giants, Pai will have an FCC majority and plenty of leeway to go after net neutrality. Its “days are numbered,” he says.